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Commander Shepard returns for a second intergalactic romp around the universe, this time tasked with saving humanity from the scourge of the Collectors. An insectoid species abducting human colonies for an unknown, yet presumably malevolent purpose. Expanding upon the universe created in Mass Effect, Shepard’s second outing rectifies many of the issues that plagued its predecessor, and may just prove the videogame equivalant of Empire strikes back.
Mass Effect 2 positions itself as an rpg of words and decisions, choice and consequence coloured with intricately detailed species politics and a smattering of gunfights. Specific characters can be killed, saved or never even make an appearance depending upon your decisions, giving them a salience lacking from most other gaming optional dialogue systems.
The weight of these choices can however be undermined somewhat by the lack of follow through from decisions made in Mass effect: Whilst your choices do change character appearances within the game, the fate of the council and whether you chose Udina or Anderson bears disappointingly little consequence upon proceedings here. Bioware have given themselves a monumental amount of planning and organisation to keep the continuity of player decisions consistent throughout Mass Effect 3.
You are again incentivised to play as either strongly paragon or renegade, opening further conversational options that allow you to dictate different outcomes to events that would otherwise be inaccessible. This ability alongside new QTE actions allowing you to interrupt specific conversations provides a little spice to what can sometimes become plain, mono tonal and droll exposition throughout this very word heavy experience. Although for those who soak up every minute detail of exposition, the codex entries provide a cornucopia of Mass Effect universe background information.
New characters present a varied and interesting cast, and to the credit of Bioware most avoid simple stereotyping with one or two layers of complexity to their history. The Drell assasin Thane Krios proves a particular high point in visual and audio design. Whilst the ever present and yet distant Illusive Man is wonderfully enigmatic in his motives, exemplified through Martin Sheen’s superb voice work.
The majority of the experience is spent traversing the universe, assembling your team to eventually confront the collector threat, in what is constantly referred to as a suicide mission. Once assembled loyalty missions for each team member open up new combat abilities, as well as offering some of the more interesting and varied experiences within the game: Ranging from courtroom drama, to the resolution of more than one disturbingly troubled parent child relationship, and a large scale skyscraper battle against mercenaries.
Alongside this plenty of side missions offer welcome distractions, consisting of more variety than the cut and paste corridor shootouts of the original. Core storyline missions appear at unavoidable milestones, ensuring progress with the main goal consistently punctuates the experience and the Collectors are never far from mind. Ultimately though the Collectors end up feeling more like a stop gap threat with the Reapers looming in the distance for Mass Effect 3.
Clunky menu navigation has been thankfully streamlined. Although those who enjoyed the complexity of customisation within Mass Effect may feel disappointed with the simplification of many RPG elements. The number of character skills and weapons upgrades are now reduced. Also vehicular planetary exploration has been replaced with the utterly tedious planetary resource scanning and mining for Element zero, Irridium, Palladium and Platinum. Chemical elements required for upgrades to the Normandy, weapons and armour. A dull and repetitive mechanic that should be banished by the time Mass Effect 3 rolls around.
Elsewhere two new time limited mini games appear simulating computer hacking. One in which a segment of code from a scrolling screen must be matched with a pictured segment, and one in which multiple nodes must be attached with their partnering node of the same pattern. They provide respite during large gunfights and fun interjections during long missions, if a little lacking in difficulty.
Combat mechanics have received the greatest of all overhauls bringing them into competition with third person shooter standard bearers such as Gears and Uncharted, and given a unique sci-fi flavour through customisable biotic/tech powers. Combining the abilities of your two squad members to overload an opponents shield, biotically levitate him into the air before decorating him with incendiary bullets is a thrill unique to Mass Effect combat. The cover system now proves significantly more usefull this time around with greatly improved fluidity of movement in and out of cover. Overall combat feels more fluid, tactical and as a result significantly more enjoyable this time around.
Mass Effect created the foundations of a new universe. Carefully and conservatively designed, it never quite managed to capitalise or expand upon the suggested potential. Bioware clearly understood this as Mass Effect 2 feels a supremely confident production, vastly improving in gunplay, conversation and storytelling. Whilst drawing these components together more cohesively than its predecessor, and suggesting brilliant things to come for the conclusion of the trilogy. In the meantime however you are presented with one of this generations most distinctive and confidently designed games. Plus Shepard gets a little more alien sexy time.